The horrors of Nazi Germany are haunting Poland more than 70 years after the Holocaust. The former Communist country has ignited a diplomatic row with Israel after its Senate approved a controversial bill penalising any suggestion of “Poland’s complicity in the Holocaust on its soil”.
Almost immediately, Donald Trump’s US, which has recently buttressed its ties with Israel by recognising Jerusalem as its capital, has warned of repercussions in yet another case-study of global policing. In effect, Poland has been confronted by Israel on the one hand and the US at another remove.
It has, by any reckoning, been a stout response from Warsaw; the draft legislation calls for fines or prison sentences of up to three years for anyone intentionally attempting to attribute the crimes of Nazi Germany to the Polish nation, specifically by referring to the three horrifying words ~ “Polish death camps”.
President Andrzej Duda has 21 days to sign the emotive legislation into law which virtually imposes a taboo on the epitaph, so to speak. The ruling Law and Justice party (PiS) has justified the bill as necessary in order to protect Poland’s international reputation, indeed to ensure that historians accept the fact that Poles as well as Jews had perished under the Nazis.
Beyond the trans-Atlantic shadow-boxing and the verbal joust must lie the historian’s tool, and historiography on the Holocaust must of necessity be embedded in empirical evidence and original source material… and not on the present generation’s subjective reflection either in Poland or Israel or for that matter America.
Poland’s perception has been greeted with criticism in the US as a threat to free speech and triggered vocal protests in Israel, which believes it could allow history to be distorted, historical facts to be “criminalised”, and the role some Poles played in Nazi Germany’s extermination of the Jews to be “whitewashed”.
A literally bloody chapter has been reopened after 70 years, one that is being examined by a generation then unborn or largely so. The value of the twin areas of history and international relations are on test as seldom since the end of World War II. “The memory of six million Jews (murdered in the Holocaust) is stronger than any law and Warsaw is engaged in a denial of the Holocaust,” is the sum and substance of Israel’s denunciation of the Polish legislation.
“We, the Poles, were victims, as were the Jews,” is the counter-argument of Poland’s rightwing, socially conservative and strongly nationalist dispensation. The country is already embroiled in a dispute with the European Union over a cache of laws it has pushed through in parliament; Brussels argues that these can undermine the bloc’s fundamental values by threatening the independence of Poland’s judiciary and media. “Holocaust revisited” has lent a new dimension to history. On test is the historian’s craft.